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date: 05 December 2023

Historical Methods in Criminologyfree

Historical Methods in Criminologyfree

  • Paul KnepperPaul KnepperJustice Studies, San José State University


The history of historical methods in criminology reveals a variety of possibilities. Before the 1970s, legal history represented historical research in criminology, although it had more to do with the development of legal doctrine than the study of crime and criminal justice. In the 1970s, the new social history emphasized alternatives to traditional archival research, including oral history, material culture studies, and statistical analyses. Oral history and material culture methods have been used for some historical studies in criminology but are less common than statistical analyses of time-series data. Historians and criminologists have produced innovations in modeling long-term crime trends. The cultural turn of the 1980s brought “histories of the present” and expanded the range of sources beyond legal documents and crime statistics to include a wider range of texts, including newspapers and novels. The digital revolution of the 1990s, as well as the construction of digital archives, has enabled research completely online and made sources for transnational history accessible. Within the past decade, criminologists and historians have started to think about historical criminology, a method that bridges history and criminology, and is well positioned to pursue several projects, including plural time, memory, and microhistory. The choice of historical method depends in part on whether “history from below” is important, as envisioned decades ago, when the new social history began to influence historical research in criminology.


  • Criminological Theory
  • Research Methods


Since the late 20th century, historical research has secured a place in criminology, although not necessarily where it was meant to be. For historians, crime became a subject of investigation during the 1970s with the arrival of the new social history. Social historians emphasized the need to discover the everyday lives of ordinary people—laborers, women, the urban poor—and now had something of interest to criminology. Not the chronicles of model institutions or the lives of great reformers, but a view of crime and criminal justice grounded in the experiences of convicts, criminals, rebels, and prisoners (Hay et al., 1975; Hobsbawm, 1969; Thompson, 1975). To pursue “history from below,” social historians promoted alternatives to the traditional method of archival research. Criminologists have practiced several of these alternatives, particularly statistical modeling techniques from social science history (Eisner, 2014; Spierenburg, 2008), “histories of the present” associated with the “cultural turn” in the 1980s (Garland, 2001, 2002), and, beginning in the 1990s, digital history enabled by the establishment of online archives (Godfrey, 2017; Shoemaker, 2019). But have alternative methods of historical research moved criminology closer to understanding the experience of ordinary people in the past?

Traditional Methods

The traditional method of historical writing was established in the late 19th century by the German historian Leopold von Ranke. At his Berlin seminar, he taught his students that the past cannot be judged by the standards of the present. The goal is to understand the past as the people who lived it understood it (Warren, 2010). The Rankean approach has been referred to as historicism, although this term is confusing because it has also been used to mean the opposite approach. As Karl Popper (1957) used the word, it meant interpreting the past through a lens of historical laws, cycles, or stages, which is not what Ranke was doing. Rather, Ranke understood history as the contingent relationship of past events, built from scrutiny of documents.

To write history, only the purest, unfiltered accounts would do, and to find these, it was necessary to travel to archives. Historians should pursue primary sources: eyewitness accounts that originated at the time of the event under investigation. It is important to be alert, Ranke taught, to distortions, embellishments, and fabrication of the historical record introduced after events and to avoid settling for more accessible secondary sources, such as memoirs or chronicles. It is essential to sift through documents: searching for provenance, inquiring about authors, and understanding the circumstances in which they were written. Further, historians should avoid constructing their arguments on limited or selective sources. Only by exploring all available sources in archives and collections, as well as collating multiple accounts of the same event, can historians make conclusions (Evans, 1997, pp. 18–19).

Writing history can be compared to building a dry-stone wall (Oakeshott, 1983). Building a wall without a mortar or chisel, as in Yorkshire, England, begins with collecting stones as they lay on the ground at the intended site of the wall. While judging the size and shape of the stones, the wall-builder fits them together: Large stones form the base, square stones for the sides, round stones at the top. There is no building plan; it depends on what is there. But the stones cannot be piled at random; otherwise, the wall will topple over with the first foul weather. A skilled dry-stone waller does not lug stones from another field, chisel them to fit, or toss odd shapes away. If the wall-builder has made the right decisions, the wall will stand for generations. Similarly, the historian assembles documents to make a coherent argument. The material must fit together, to form a pattern, without the mortar of laws or chisel of selectivity. The process requires imagination; without imagination, there can be no written history, only annals or chronicles. But there can be no predetermined design; what emerges depends on the evidence available. A document that contradicts the pattern cannot be overlooked but rather suggests the need for reevaluation. The argument needs to withstand the criticism of other historians who are familiar with the sources. If the historian can match the skill of the wall-builder, the structure can survive for generations.

Before the 1970s, lawyers dominated the writing of crime history. The eminent Victorians—James Fitzjames Stephen, Luke O. Pike, William Holdsworth—produced multivolume histories of English law. They followed methods learned within the legal profession; they identified important decisions and described the beliefs of those who made them. Legal history resembled traditional methods of historical inquiry: the lawyer-historians evaluated documents in libraries and archives. But they produced something more like what Popper rejected rather than what Ranke proposed. Legal historians brought the present to their work in the form of the practical needs of lawyers; they organized the past to fit contemporary legal concepts and doctrine (Knepper, 2016, pp. 6–9).

It required four decades for Leon Radzinowicz to produce his five-volume history of English law (Radzinowicz, 1948). To write about law in England from the 18th century to the early 20th century, he read through a staggering amount of documents: 1,250 reports of commissions of inquiry, 3,000 accounts and papers, 800 annual reports, and 1,100 volumes of parliamentary debates. The final volume, coauthored with Roger Hood, on Victorian and Edwardian criminal justice policy, included 800 pages of annotated text from primary sources (Radzinowicz & Hood, 1990). However, Radzinowicz wrote his history within the framework of “Progress” looking back from the 20th century. It was “history for lawyers,” as Hay (1984) observed, the portrayal of law as the accomplishment of a small clique of people trained in law and without reference to the wider social, economic, and political conflicts that generate legal questions and answers.

Microhistory offers the best example of the contribution of traditional methods of historical research to criminology. Microhistorians use legal texts but engage in a historical interpretation of these materials to grasp social, political, and cultural meanings. They specialize in the lives of forgotten individuals and their experiences in courts, prisons, and asylums. Microhistorians do refer back, implicitly or explicitly, to comparable series of activity, but their strategy for investigation is about particular cases, whether individuals, groups, or societies. They conduct a microscopic analysis of tiny details to explicate the abstractions of historical theory (Kilday & Nash, 2017; Muir & Ruggerio, 1991).

“The historian’s knowledge,” microhistorian Carlo Ginzburg (1980, p. 16) says, “is indirect, based on signs and scraps of evidence, conjectural.” Conjectural knowledge became the basis for the emerging historical sciences (archaeology, geology, astronomy, and paleontology, as well as history) in the 19th century. Because these sciences investigate causes that cannot be repeated, the investigator must infer what happened from traces in the present. But conjectural knowledge represents a much older way of knowing; it is informal knowledge, transmitted by word of mouth, based on accumulated experience that allows the observer to understand more than what is seen directly. In 1880, Thomas Huxley, in a series of lectures publicizing Darwin’s work, defined the method common to the historical sciences as Zadig’s method, a reference to the ancient tale of hunters deciphering animal tracks to solve a murder (Ginzburg, 1980, p. 23).

Ginzburg also points out that conjectural knowledge is a “low” knowledge, the kind “which exists everywhere in the world, without geographic, historical, ethnic, gender or class exception,” but the property of those who in a given society are not in a position of power, different from any “high” or superior form of knowledge restricted to an elite (Ginzburg, 1980, p. 29). Traditional historical writing, then, represents a method of knowing among common, ordinary people. It is a “bottom-up” form of inquiry: the way in which people in low places within society make sense of their world.

The New Social History

The arrival of the new social history in the 1970s brought about an interest in historical methods. Traditional historians wrote about military campaigns, diplomatic intrigues, and political strategies; they narrated the events that changed the course of kingdoms and nations. To do this, they made use of documents—treaties, correspondence, and diaries—left by political and military leaders. The new social historians turned the focus away from the extraordinary feats of a few privileged families and toward the everyday activities of “the masses” as they went about their lives. Rather than history from the top down, the new social history looked at the past from the bottom up: the experiences of women, the laboring poor, and the dangerous classes (Stearns, 1980).

As the style of historical writing shifted from descriptive to analytical, historians began to consider methods and choices. “Although it might be exaggerating the case to speak of a methodological revolution in the 1970s,” Michael Kammen (1980, p. 31) put it, “a revolution in awareness surely has occurred.” Traditional historians did not feel obliged to discuss their methods. They did not reveal the process of discovery, or arrangement, or evaluation—how they fit the stones together to make the wall. The new social history brought a suspicion of documents: what was the purpose for writing them, how they came to be the archives, and what was left out. Because those nearer the floor of society do not leave diaries, correspondence, and other narrative sources, social historians emphasized the need for alternative methodologies, including quantitative studies, oral history, and material culture history. Computer-assisted statistical analyses of data offered a means of mapping social structures, including mobility, urbanization, and migration. Oral history interviews provided a window into the past for Indigenous peoples, women, and others without written records. Material culture, the things people have left behind, such as tools, toys, and clothing, could reveal the hidden life of social institutions: the family, factory, asylum, and school (Kammen, 1980).

More so than anyone else, the British Marxist historians brought the history from below to criminology. Eric Hobsbawm, Edward Thompson, and the Warwick School were labor historians who wrote about “primitive rebels,” individuals regarded by the authorities as criminals but respected as champions by their own communities. They revealed the preconscious political struggles of poachers, smugglers, bandits, wreckers, and arsonists. The British Marxist historians demonstrated the relevance of history to criminology, the importance of social theory in historical investigation, and had a particular influence on the radical criminology. Crime and Social Justice, the journal founded at the capital of radical criminology in the 1970s, the University of California at Berkeley, brought Albion’s Fatal Tree (1975) and Whigs and Hunters (1975) to its readers (Ray, 1976, p. 91).

Despite their contribution to radical theory, the British Marxist historians pursued a conservative approach to historical methods. Hobsbawm’s Primitive Rebels (1959), the study that introduced “social crime,” relies on narrative documents he found in European libraries and archives. Whigs and Hunters (1975), as well as the studies in Albion’s Fatal Tree (1975), use legal documents: Assize court trials, Quarter Sessions’ indictments, pardons, and remarks of judges at sentencing. Hobsbawm agreed that oral history could furnish the views of ordinary people about big events, but he did not see oral history interviews as a substitute for primary documentary sources. He would remain skeptical of oral history until, he said, historians understood what goes wrong in personal memory as well as what goes wrong in transmitting manuscripts: “Most oral history today is personal memory, which is a remarkably slippery medium for preserving facts,” Hobsbawm (1997, p. 206) warned.

With the exception of statistical analysis, alternative methods for writing history have not developed as imagined. Oral history has become a popular technique for writing the history of criminology, and this has featured the lives of prominent men who founded the discipline. Gene Carte initiated an oral history project in 1971 to explore the legacy of August Vollmer, founder of the American Society of Criminology. The project recorded interviews (conducted by Jane Howard Robinson) with the V-men, a circle of former Berkeley police officers who knew Vollmer as “chief,” and established degree programs at universities. Vollmer’s generation included remarkable women who contributed to criminology, including Edith Abbott, Chloe Owings, Eleanor Glueck, and Frances Glessner Lee, but the oral history initiative started with men. John Laub (1984a) interviewed prominent men who established criminology as an academic discipline between 1930 and 1960, including Leslie Wilkins, Edwin Lemert, Thorsten Sellin, Albert Cohen, and Lloyd Ohlin. Gray Cavender shifted the exclusive focus on the men of criminology in his oral history interviews for the American Journal of Criminal Justice during the 1990s. Along with Albert Cohen and Jerome Skolnick, he also interviewed Meda Chesny-Lind and Coramae Richey Mann.

Laub (1984b) did encourage criminologists to record oral history interviews with judges, probation officers, police, and other professionals to understand the development of criminal justice, as well as delinquents and criminals to compare experiences across time (and see Laub & Smith, 1995). Criminologists have taken Laub’s advice, and some notable histories have appeared. The history of policing Britain has benefited from several oral histories (Brogden, 1991; Cockcroft, 2005; Weinberger, 1995). In her study of colonial policing, Georgina Sinclair interviewed hundreds of former colonial police constables, and they shared their experiences at the end of the British Empire. The interviews also opened up a trove of materials in private collections—diaries, letters, memoirs, handbooks, and memorabilia—to supplement the records available at the National Archives in London (Sinclair, 2006).

The most likely place for criminologists to encounter material culture has been museum studies, a topic that has emerged in criminology only in the past decade. Historians have examined museums of criminology, police museums, and decommissioned prisons now serving as tourist sites (Knepper, 2019). The focus, however, has not been using the artifacts, whether burglars’ tools or prisoner-made handcrafts, to uncover the experiences of people from below. Rather, these studies have been devoted to deciphering the top-down message of government power (Walby & Piché, 2015; Welch, 2012).

Material culture can provide a bottom-up or, rather, “ground-up” view of institutions. Eleanor Casella, a specialist in historical archaeology, directed excavations at the Ross Factory in Tasmania, an institution for female convicts shipped to Australia during the 19th century. The solitary cells had no floor, except for compacted earth, and from this soil, she recovered a surprising number of artifacts that could only have arrived through infractions of factory regulations. These illicit materials included clay tobacco pipes and glass alcohol bottles. Contrary to the image of women prisoners as docile, these suggest the role of women in resistance to colonial rule. In addition, the excavations unearthed decorative shell and copper buttons, which were not provided as part of factory uniforms. Rather, as suggested by documentary accounts of smuggling and trade within the prison, these items functioned as “tokens” allowing the women to purchase luxuries and temptations. “The female convicts incarcerated within the Ross Female Factory inhabited a complex social world,” Casella (2001, p. 65) concluded, “a cultural landscape of shifting allies and enemies, of fluid opportunities, and of carefully guarded places.”

Social Science History

Rather than describe events during a particular period, the new social history wanted to recover the experience of the masses. To understand social structure and change over time, social historians imported techniques from social science, particularly statistical techniques used in demography, geography, and urban studies. During the late 1970s, when historians gained access to mainframe computers, a few pioneers began to examine crime trends. By the mid-1980s, when desktop computers became available along with software packages for statistical analysis, social science history took off in criminology (Aebi & Linde, 2016).

One of the most intriguing statistical questions to emerge has been long-term crime trends. In 1981, Ted Robert Gurr assembled evidence of a decline in homicide rates in England between the 13th century and 20th century. For the earliest centuries, he calculated homicide rates for years or decades from the work of English historians gleaned from coroners’ reports and court records. From the beginning of the 19th century, he incorporated statistics from official records. It was a startling finding. Gurr’s empirical data contradicted the impression of a “peaceful past, violent present” and sparked a blaze of methodological issues among criminologists and historians (Gurr, 1981).

As similar analyses from other parts of Europe accumulated, the consensus accepted a “great decline” in violence. The conversation turned to what might be behind this trend. In The Civilization of Crime (Johnson & Monkkonen, 1996), Eric Johnson and Eric Monkkenon favored Nobert Elias’s “civilizing process” as the best theoretical explanation. But a few years later, Monkkonen had buyer’s remorse and decided the statistical methodology needed more work: “Should we conclude that the empirical question is now settled? That a ‘violent past, peaceful present’ describes our world? Should we move on to other questions? I believe not” (Monkkonen, 2001, p. 6). Monkkonen worried about generalizing from atypical study sites, homicides missing from the database, uncertain population estimates, and the impact of medical intervention and advanced weapons. Others continue to believe that violence has declined over the centuries and that Elias’s theory explains it (Eisner, 2003; Spierenburg, 2008). In 2011, psychologist Steven Pinker decided the civilizing process, when combined with evolutionary psychology, explained the long-term decline in violence (Pinker, 2011).

But doubts about the methodology have not gone away. Roth (2018) has declared, “The evidence for a long-term decline in murder is not there.” He faults criminologists and historians for failing to measure the correlates associated with the civilizing process: state formation, commercial activity, feminization, cosmopolitanism, and rationality. The advocates of the great decline have not measured these forces, so they do not demonstrate them at work, whether in the decline or retreats from the civilizing process (Roth, 2018, p. 99). Gerd Schwerhoff and colleagues also doubt that a great decline in violence has taken place in Europe. They, too, question the homicide figures and the population estimates. “All in all, what seems to be an extensive set of data at first sight, reveals itself as a hodgepodge of the most varied fragmentary information” (Schwerhoff et al., 2021, p. 20). They also flag a methodological decision by researchers who believe in the great decline—that is, to regard low figures for early periods as incomplete, favor high figures, and skew the overall results.

Elias’s theory “matches the data so well” because the data are the statistics. Historians always work with limited information, but for those engaged in statistical analysis of long-term crime trends, one limitation is self-imposed: The answer to every question about uncertain data or inadequate technique is more data, better technique. Eisner (2011) suggested the usefulness of historical archaeology. Understanding the kind of weapons available across the centuries would help answer at least one of Monkkonen’s questions about the trend, but Eisner (2014) returns to the statistical data to analyze the weapons issue. (Specialization in research methods does limit triangulation in historical research in criminology; historians who know archival research return to their documents, and historians who know statistical methods return their software.) And, in order for the civilizing thesis to be the answer, those who believe in a great decline need to adjust the question. It becomes necessary to assume that homicide offers an index of “criminal violence” in general, including victimizations such as rape, but overlooks “political violence,” such as rape, committed during the wars of the 20th century. Given Monkkonen’s (2001) commitment to statistical reasoning, he avoided even commenting on this issue.

The civilizing process, as Elias talked about it, is a top-down explanation for the great decline—the intervention of elites and the extension of government control. The statistics reflect the behavior of ordinary people, but ordinary people increasingly behave in a nonviolent way due to the influence of the ideas and practices of elites and authorities. Is there a bottom-up explanation? Opportunity theory within criminology proposes that the behavior of ordinary people determines the possibilities for crime. Steps taken by the masses for self-protection, security, and prevention regulate the amount and type of criminal activity. In addition, technological, cultural, social, and other changes create openings or chances for criminal victimization (Van Dijk, 2008).

One of the long-term changes is the management of darkness (Ekirch, 2005). In the centuries before the Industrial Revolution, people struggled to keep themselves safe at night—they tried “shutting in,” carrying weapons, and organizing a watch. Or finding a source of light. For wealthy households, candlelight would ward off burglars. Those lower down would have settled for rushlight made from kitchen fat or prepared themselves to face thieves in the darkness (Ekirch, 2005, pp. 90–117). The technology for lighting varies across the centuries, from candles, to oil lamps, to gas and electricity, but also by region and social class. Understanding what ordinary people did to protect themselves, as evidenced by documentary sources as well as material culture, may provide a bottom-up understanding of long-term trends in homicide.

The Cultural Turn

Within a decade or so, social history claimed the center of historical writing. But by the 1980s, the “cultural turn” was already under way. The “new cultural history” brought new priorities and opportunities for writing about the past and had an impact on historiography as large as the social history movement (Hunt, 1989). No one played a more dramatic role in bringing the cultural turn to criminology than Michel Foucault.

Discipline and Punish (1979) incorporated archival documents, and initially, criminologists read it as a contribution to the emerging social history of the prison (Foucault 1979). But Foucault used archival materials as no historian would. When he wrote about Bentham’s panopticon, he had more in mind than the scheme of an eccentric Englishman. The panopticon design represented the way social control was diffused throughout modern life. Prisons, police, law, and government had no special importance. Scientific thinking offered no secure route to knowledge—there was no place to stand outside “the all-seeing eye.” The architecture of power and control could be found everywhere: in other social institutions, other relationships; within language, within thinking itself. The clue to Foucault’s project turned out not to be in the subtitle but in the introduction. Foucault was not really interested in “the birth of the prison”; he was writing a “history of the present” (Foucault, 1979).

Within the next few decades, history of the present seemed to be everywhere in criminology. It offered a kind of analytical or theoretical history that avoided the taint of undertheorized descriptions of the past. Because it was about the present, it was relevant: a glimpse of the future. History of the present multiplied the possible sources—official or unofficial, fiction or nonfiction, primary or secondary—it did not matter. All texts expressed language that could be disassembled through “discourse analysis” to reveal the mechanics of power—legal and medical reports (Shapiro, 1996), newspaper stories about murder (Walkowitz, 1992), and detective novels (Miller, 2008). The sources did not even need to be documents; a history of the present could be written about tools and gadgets (Horn, 2006) and photographs (Carney, 2015).

David Garland has emerged as the preeminent interpreter of Foucault. Garland’s analytical style and elegant language, combined with use of archival materials, succeeded in bringing Foucault into the historiography of punishment and criminology. His approach has been to “sociologize Foucault’s philosophical arguments” (Garland, 2019b, p. 640). In Punishment and Welfare (1985), Garland used a range of primary documents to conclude that between 1890 and 1914, the British government instituted the power to punish within the modern welfare state (Garland, 1985a). Garland intended, as he explains in the preface to the 2018 edition, “to follow Michel Foucault’s lead and write ‘a history of the present’ uncovering the political and ideological struggles that have given rise to modern penal practice” (Garland, 2019a, p. 269). In his articles on the history of criminology, Garland borrowed from Foucault to identify the Lombrosian project, the criminal as “other,” and to identify the prison as a “surface of emergence” for criminology, a disciplinary science (Garland, 1985b, 1988). He built on Foucault’s genealogy to show how Lombrosian criminology had influenced courts and prisons in Britain (Garland, 2002).

Four decades after Foucault introduced history of the present, Garland found it useful to explain what Foucault meant by it. Although Foucault was interested in history, he invented his own form of inquiry; initially, he called it archaeology, but later he used the term genealogy. Archaeology was his term for digging into the past to uncover discursive traces of historical periods and reassembling them, like layers or strata, each with its own form of discourse (Garland, 2014, p. 369). Foucault understood the past as an assemblage of historical eras, each with a signature pattern of thought and conceptual language. He imagined changing eras or periods of history in a way that bears a “superficial” resemblance to the concept of “paradigm shift” in Thomas Kuhn’s history of science (Garland, 2014, p. 370). Discipline and Punish introduced the genealogical strategy of using historical research to disturb contemporary conceptions and examine the change brought about by archaeologies. Genealogy of knowledge shows “descent” and “emergence” and how contingencies of these processes continue to shape the present (Garland, 2014, p. 371). If Foucault seemed to have something to say about actual historical events, this amounts to a “category mistake” that places Foucault’s project on the shelf alongside “conventional historical research” (Garland, 2014, p. 374). Foucault remains a philosopher, and history of the present is a philosophical idea: “Genealogy is relatively uninterested in the specific intentions and meanings of historical actors” (Garland, 2014, p. 381).

Is a history of the present, even the sociologized version, enough? Linebaugh (1992) observes that one can critique what the authorities of a previous era were doing from a perspective in the present—what the institutions they created have become (mass imprisonment)—to show how mistaken their view was. But it is impossible to write about punishment without understanding the experience of those subject to it—to appreciate that what the authorities believed they were doing and what ordinary people felt about this were not the same thing (Linebaugh, 1992). In her study of prisons for women in 19th-century United States, Nicole Rafter (1985), demonstrated the importance of understanding not only the decisions about their confinement made by men but also the experiences of the women themselves. Using registers for prisons in several states, she built case studies to discover differences for Black women and White women, as well as regional differences across the South, Midwest, and West. Rafter wrote about “people who are neglected,” marginalized subpopulations of women, those with disabilities, and racial/ethnic minorities, within marginalized populations, including prisoners, asylum inmates, and crime victims. She challenged the conclusions that historians—even the revisionists—had made about punishment in general from their observations of model institutions created for men (Rafter & Farrell, 2015).

One of the many studies inspired by Rafter’s work, Knepper (1992) tells about the women confined at the Arizona Territorial Prison at Yuma between 1876 and 1909. The prison register records the names of about 3,000 men and 28 women. The register can be interpreted as a text that reveals the logic of confinement. Prison authorities inspected the bodies of incoming prisoners within an anthropometric understanding of criminal identification and made brief notations in the register. The Lombrosian project reached the western frontier of the United States, a moment that affirms the institutional origins of criminal anthropology (Garland, 1985, p. 115). The register can also be interpreted as an archival document that reveals something about those confined—about the women themselves and their experience of frontier society. Comparing the notations for men and women, a pattern emerges. The men are much more likely to have tattoos; the women are much more likely to have scars. Jesús Chacón, a 19-year-old woman sent to Yuma in 1902 for arson, had a scar on her forehead above her left eye, a scar on her right shoulder, and scars on her back, neck, and left forearm (Knepper, 1992, p. 240). Her body recorded victimization, violence, and abuse—continuities in women’s experience between past and present that remain unaltered by the “critical junctures” and “exemplary moments” in punishment for men.

The Digital Revolution

During the 1990s, historical methods in criminology took another turn. Digitization expanded yet again the range of source material, and Internet-based search and retrieval increased the possibilities. It was, Barry Godfrey (2012) explains, “something of a revolution” in sources of empirical data. Mountains of traditional sources—court registers, coroners records, prison registers, politics statistics—became available to anyone with access to the Internet, along with an avalanche of primary sources—contemporary newspapers; illustrations, broadsides, and cartoons; autobiographies, memoirs, and diaries; and films, photographs, and plans (Godfrey, 2012, pp. 164–165).

Godfrey helped create the premiere digital archive for historical research in criminology. The Digital Panopticon began in 2000 with a project led by Robert Shoemaker and Tim Hitchcock to digitize the proceedings of London’s Old Bailey. The project assembled on a single, searchable, publicly available online platform the records of criminals convicted at the Old Bailey between late 18th and the late 19th centuries. Following the launch in 2003 of the Old Bailey Online, subsequent projects linked the court records with a wide range of resources (Hitchcock & Shoemaker, 2006). The Digital Panopticon extracted trial reports for the 110,000 people convicted at the Old Bailey from 1780 to 1868, the population from which the legal and penal authorities selected convicts transported to Australia. The expanded project brought 50 data sets with “cradle-to-grave” information about 100,000 convict lives: criminal registers, transportation registers and convict indents, records of convicts arriving in Australia, prisons and hulk registers, and prison licenses (parole). The project also linked civil records—specifically, 19th-century British census material, along with records of births, marriages, and deaths—and further linked to databases that had already been digitized by commercial sources, including British Newspapers 1600–1900, House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, and the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera. By 2017, the Digital Panopticon had brought together 4 million records pertaining to some 250,000 people (Shoemaker, 2019; Ward & Williams, 2016).

There have been technological innovations in the history of archival research. Beginning in the 1950s, microfilm brought an “active information system” to card-catalog searches and retrieval of material from stacks. Microfilm promised an explosion of archival sources given the ability for compact storage of bulky paper materials. But the speed and scale of digitization, combined with Internet access, have brought opportunities and questions to historical research in criminology that had not been encountered before. The advent of the Internet made it “possible to research and write credible, evidence-based history on many topics using exclusively online sources” (Hitchcock, 2013, p. 9), not to mention publishing the results of that research in electronic journals, blogs, podcasts, webinars, and so on.

The online archive offers “digital affordances,” as Hitchcock (2017) puts it, which may disrupt the writing of crime history in the way Internet shopping disrupted brick-and-mortar businesses. It allows for changing the questions historians ask, as well as the method for finding answers. The online archive reverses the traditional process of historical inquiry. It is a “data-first” approach in which the historian constructs a data set that leads to a particular conclusion rather than stating an argument and arranging the documentary evidence to support it. The online archive enables the possibility for “connected history” (Godfrey, 2017, p. 41). Crime history appears to be uniquely positioned to take advantage of “big data.” This includes transnational connections, as well as links across time periods and disciplinary boundaries. Shoemaker, Godfrey, and other founders of the Digital Panopticon have also identified limitations or dangers of using online archives. Instant data are not necessarily a good thing. Traditional research on location at archives affords time to think. Melding documentary material from diverse archives into a single “digital product” can make this material difficult to interpret. The vastness of sources available online, combined with the uncertainty of algorithms used by online search engines, makes riddling the vast “digital landfill” nearly overwhelming (Godfrey, 2017; Showmaker, 2019).

The online archive raises new possibilities for “history from below.” By joining up archival materials, it is possible to glimpse lives of individuals who previously existed as names in disparate bodies of records. “This telling of life stories of otherwise poor and marginalized people,” Shoemaker (2019) writes,

has given new life to the historiographical approach of “history from below,” which has been carried out by a number of historians and criminologists, and stand as a strong counterpart to the histories of the privileged which historians so often write. (p. 7)

Or, as Godfrey (2017) says, linking data sets across national, temporal, and disciplinary boundaries “could position crime historians at the forefront of the new ‘history from below’ paradigm” (p. 41). Institutional records provide scraps of information about particular individuals, which makes it difficult know much about them. By collecting pieces of description from multiple institutions, the Digital Panopticon makes it possible to assemble a “life grid” that identifies major life events and reconstruct the life course of forgotten individuals (Watkins, 2020).

In 2019, the Digital Panopticon added a collection of convict tattoos, which does provide a means of understanding convicts’ outlook, derived from the ways they choose to mark their bodies (Shoemaker, 2019, p. 13). Tepperman’s (2019) study of convict tattoos during the 1920s and 1930s, gathered from physical and online archives of prisons across the United States, reveals expressions of masculinity, sentimentality, and nationalism, as well as affinities with social institutions, most often military organizations and trade unions. The tattoos suggest “common lived experiences” and identification with a working-class culture, including sailors, soldiers, traders, and laborers. But for the most part, Shoemaker acknowledges, the digital lives on display are limited to interactions with institutions, courts, and prisons. The online records yield very little about the convicts’ families and friends, their work and leisure activities, and their interests and passions (Shoemaker, 2019, p. 13).

Katherine Roscoe (2022) interrogates the colonial archive. While data can be extracted for various purposes, the view is from the metropole looking out at the periphery. Digital lives are not the color of water but the color of poor White Europeans—the “cradle-to-grave” aspect being records of working-class people from “their British roots to Australian fates.” She has built a database of prisoners on Cockatoo Island, Sydney’s Colonial Prison. Inmates included Aboriginal, African American, Afro Caribbean, Black British, Chinese, and Southeast Asian migrants alongside White convicts and their descendants. In building her data set, she realized how “many people of colour slip between the gaps of digital-record linkage.” Various misspellings or nicknaming of Indigenous Chinese, African, or Indian names, together with scant recording of their birthplace or ship, makes them difficult to find when traveling across databases. Recordkeeping practices vary considerably across institutions, so that they fall into the cracks opened up by virtual spaces. Large-scale digitization projects will replicate their omission due to limitations in keyword searches and use of the optical character recognition method of producing online sources. Roscoe (2022) explains that “decolonizing digital crime history is challenging because the changes have to be structural, not surface level” (p. 172).

Historical Criminology

Within the past few years, the phrase historical criminology has started to appear with greater frequency (Churchill et al., 2021; Yeomans et al., 2021). Historical criminology can be defined as using archival research to address current crime and criminal justice issues (Bosworth, 2001; Knepper & Scicluna, 2010; Lawrence, 2009). Lawrence (2009) refers to historical criminology as “research which incorporates historical primary sources while addressing present-day debates and practices in the criminal justice field” (p. 495). Churchill (2017) proposes that historical criminology is less about a commitment to archival research than to “think historically.” Historical criminology represents an “engagement with concepts of historical time . . . encompassing studies pursued for various purposes and via different methods” (Churchill, 2017, p. 379). Tepperman (2022) expresses an essential truth when he writes that historical criminologists are those who accept the “dual purpose of speaking meaningfully to both the criminological past and present” (p. 2).

Historical criminology would be well positioned to take on several projects—to begin with, the “criminology of time” (Knepper, 2014) or “plural history” (Churchill, 2017). Churchill (2017) has emphasized the usefulness of breaking away from the singular, linear conception of time divided into discrete periods. He points to the conception of time within the work of Reinhart Koselleck, who envisioned “sediments or layers of time.” These layers—long term, midterm, and short term—interact through structures of repetition or recurrence. Events are singular occurrences that surprise those who experience them. But this singularity unfolds historically in recurrent ways recorded by accounts of singular experience by previous generations (Koselleck, 2018, pp. 3–9). Fernand Braudel also imagined three levels of time, or history moving at three speeds. In his history of the Mediterranean, he saw the natural environment, the mountains, deserts, and sea, as constraints on behavior that persist across generations. The behaviors produce the “almost immobile history” of geographical time. He described the “slowly rhythmic history . . . of groups and groupings” shaped by long-term trends in trade and transport, empire, and warfare. This he referred to as social time. The “history of events” unfolds in individual time; it has “the dimension of their anger, dreams and delusions” (Braudel, 1980, pp. 3–5).

Unique events in the history of crime can be understood as turning points, or moments of change. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 brought a rise in property crime across Western Europe during the 1990s. The end of the wall connected two parts of the continent that differed dramatically in wealth and material and created a substantial market for stolen goods in Central and Eastern Europe (Aebi & Linde, 2010, pp. 266–267). Other events repeat themselves, or recur, suggesting the need to understand persistence or continuity over time. There were some 5,600 murders in Chicago between 1875 and 1920, but in the typical case, a man killed another man, most often in a drunken brawl. Overall, the murder rate increased during this period of time, and whatever the etiology of this behavior—culture, geography, time, or technology—the same murder repeats itself again and again (Adler, 2003, p. 553).

Another project for historical criminology would be memory. Among historians, memory has become an important subject in the past few decades, an extension of the cultural turn in the 1980s. Historians have developed a conceptual vocabulary for memory studies and engaged in debates about the meaning of this language (Berger & Niven, 2014). Within criminology, serious work in this area has scarcely begun. Memory, as Nicole Rafter pointed out, is vital for criminology. But where criminology needs an active process of recollection, there is silence (Brown & Rafter, 2013; Rafter, 2010). The work of Maurice Halbwachs provides a valuable starting point. In Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire (1925), translated as On Collective Memory (Halbwachs, 1992), Halbwachs proposed that individuals belong to social groups whose coherence and identity rely on a shared view of the past. Memory resides in the minds of individual members of a group, but personal recollections can only be communicated to others through social frames that shape individual memory.

The return of the crime museum has led criminologists to explore cultural sites of memory. Every year, millions of tourists visit police museums throughout the world, from Buenos Aires to Seattle, Mexico City to Malta, and sites of former prisons, including Alcatraz Island, Robben Island, and Port Arthur. The Hans Gross museum at Graz reopened in 2003 and the Lombroso Museum at Turin in 2009. In 2015, Scotland Yard’s Black Museum staged a public exhibition—the first ever—at the Museum of London (Knepper, 2019). Wilson (2008), in her examination of prison tourism in Australia, has identified the ways these sites promote a public memory consistent with the government’s view of these institutions, reinforced via former prison guards who serve as tour guides. Displays of uniforms, gadgets, and equipment in police museums reinforce the “history of progress” view of the past and portray the police function in society as essential and beneficial. Other locations represent sites of “contested memory.” Ystehede (2016) observes the ways in museum exhibits have become the focus of political conflicts, and proposals for monuments at the sites of criminal victimization have invoked concerns about commercialization.

Historical criminology could also engage, or reengage, with archival research following the lead of microhistory. In the 1950s, Braudel advocated statistical analysis to grasp long periods of time. He sent historians into archives in search of time-series data and, if they could not be found, to build a data set from the archives. He used the word microstorie as an insult, but Ginzburg and colleagues adopted the term and gave it new meaning. Microhistorians counter quantification and abstraction of historical inquiry though microscopic analysis. The smallest events can provide far-reaching conclusions (Tepperman, 2021, p. 147). The Braudel–Ginzburg exchange repeated itself, so to speak, in the 2000s. The advocates of statistical analyses of long-term homicide trends sought to explain why high rates persisted in the United States, contrary to the great decline for Europe. Spierenburg (2006) supposed that democracy arrived “too early” in American history and that the civilizing thesis remained the leading theory. Dale (2006) took the microhistory route. The legal system in the United States has so many local, state, and regional variations that it is difficult to generalize. She focused on two South Carolina murder cases, in a jurisdiction notorious for its “culture of violence.” She wrote about extralegal justice, punishment outside the legal system, and a legal culture in which acquittal meant shame and ostracism for the defendants.


During the 1970s, the new social history brought to criminology the opportunity for understanding crime and criminal justice in the past from the bottom up. Rather than reading the views of reformers, administrators, and other “great men,” the social history revolution encouraged an understanding of convicts, women, inmates, and urban poor. To do this, it would be necessary to explore alternatives to traditional historical research with documents in archives: to pursue oral history, material culture studies, and statistical analyses. Although historians in criminology have recorded oral history interviews, analyzed museum collections, and, to greater extent, carried out statistical analyses of historical data, the prevailing view has been top down. Alternative methods have been used to critique elite views rather than learn about ordinary lives. The cultural turn of the 1980s accelerated this situation. Those inspired to do histories of the present have devoted their full attention to the aims of the authorities and how the institutions they created have delivered on their design.

But the situation seems to be changing. The digital revolution of the 1990s offers a new possibility for a history from below, for learning about the everyday lives of the system-impacted, the marginalized, and the victimized. Big data can reveal small lives in the past. And in recent years, the interest in defining and developing historical criminology has renewed interest in microhistory. Microhistory has yielded knowledge about those in low places and a glimpse at the lives of ordinary people affected by criminal victimization and the response to it, even if it relies on documents. The basis for archival research, conjectural knowledge, represents a low form of knowledge, a way of knowing common to those at the floor of society.

Further Reading

  • Bosworth, M. (2001). The past as a foreign country? Some methodological implications of doing historical criminology. British Journal of Criminology, 41, 431–442.
  • Bretschneider, F., Johansen, A., Lévy, R., & Rousseaux, X. (2017). Twenty years of Crime, Histoire & Sociétés/Crime, History & Societies: Reflections on a dynamic field of research. Crime, Histoire & Sociétés [Crime, History & Societies], 21, 17–30.
  • Churchill, D., Yeomans, H., & Channing, I. (2021). Historical criminology. Routledge.
  • Garland, D. (2019). Reading Foucault: An ongoing engagement. Journal of Law and Society, 46, 640–661.
  • Godfrey, B. (2012). Historical and archival research methods. In D. Gadd, S. Karstedt, & S. F. Messner (Eds.), Criminological research methods (pp. 159–174). SAGE.
  • Godfrey, B. (2016). The crime historian’s modi operandi. In P. Knepper & A. Johansen (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of the history of crime and criminal justice (pp. 38–56). Oxford University Press.
  • Knepper, P. (2016). Writing the history of crime. Bloomsbury.
  • Knepper, P. (2017). Criminal history: Uses of the past and the ethics of the archive. In M. Cowburn, L. Gelsthorpe, & A. Wahidin (Eds.), Research ethics in criminology: Dilemmas, issues and solutions (pp. 22–36). Routledge.
  • Knepper, P. (2019). Second science? The future of historical science in criminology. In G. Farrell & A. Sidbottom (Eds.), Realist evaluation for crime science: Essays in honour of Nick Tilley (pp. 119–137). Routledge.
  • Rafter, N. (2013). The melodramatic publication career of Lombroso’s La donna delinquente. In P. Knepper & P. J. Ystehede (Eds.), The Cesare Lombroso handbook (pp. 187–200). Routledge.
  • Rafter, N., & Farrell, A. (2015). Playing in the sandbox: A methodological conversation. In M. Maltz & S. Rice (Eds.), Envisioning criminology: Researchers on research as a process of discovery (pp. 127–141). Springer.
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  • Spierenburg, P. (2013). A personal recollection of Norbert Elias and how I became a crime historian. In P. Spierenburg (Ed.), Violence and punishment: Civilizing the body through time (pp. 310–317). Polity.
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